In his massive two-volume work on Paul, N. T. Wright argues that Paul’s letter to Philemon is about much more than encouraging a well-to-do friend to take back an erring slave. It rather addresses the dynamic and changing relationship between Philemon and his fellow believer, Onesimus. “Perhaps,” Paul wrote, “the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”
Paul didn’t want Philemon to receive Onesimus because he was fond of the slave and did not want him punished. His reasons were more than personal; they were theological. As Wright puts it, “For Paul the reconciliation and mutual welcome of all those ‘in the Messiah’ took precedence over everything else.” In 2 Corinthians Paul sums up the gospel by asserting, “God…reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” Paul insists that all those “in Messiah Jesus” are called to work for the reconciliation of the world to God. To do this they needed to be reconciled to each other.
One of Paul’s greatest challenges was to reconcile the Jewish followers of Jesus and the Gentile followers of Jesus. This concern is found throughout his letters, but especially in Romans and Galatians. In Galatians the problem is that some Jewish followers of Jesus want the marks of Judaism imposed on the Gentiles. They want the Gentile to be circumcised, keep kosher, and follow the Jewish calendar. Paul reacts very strongly against this. It was not necessary, he argues, for the Gentiles to accept these “boundary markers.” They did not need to become Jews to follow Jesus. In Romans Paul faces a different problem. Here the Gentile followers of Jesus are denigrating the Jewish followers of Jesus. They seem to be saying that those boundary markers are passé and the Jews who keep them are somehow inferior to the more liberated Gentiles. Paul reacts strongly against this as well.
It is easy to imagine that we are “strong” and someone else is “weak” because they do not believe as we do.
For Paul the denigration of the Gentiles for their lack of circumcision or the denigration of the Jews for sustaining the rite is a threat to the unity of the people of God and a blow against their efforts to effect God’s reconciliation in the world. So in Romans 14 and 15 he inveighs against those who imagine themselves to be “strong,” looking down on their “weaker” brothers and sisters. “The one who eats everything,” he writes, “must not treat with contempt the one who does not and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted that person.” In light of this, “why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat your brother or sister with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”
We may think that what one eats or drinks or whether and how one celebrates the Sabbath is a matter of indifference. They clearly did not. For the Jewish followers of Jesus these were marks of following God. Failure to keep kosher and observe the Sabbath was a serious sin. But Paul insisted that these groups, one “weak” and one “strong,” should stay together in spite of this serious difference. He insisted that their unity in Messiah meant more than even this crucial conflict.
It is easy for any of us to imagine that we are the “strong” and someone else is “weak” because they do not believe or practice as we do. It is easy to imagine that as a result we need to denigrate or eliminate the “weak.” For Paul, this would be the greatest of disasters. It would mean “destroy[ing] your brother or sister for whom Christ died” and undermining the very work of reconciliation to which God has called us.